Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pat Conroy, Banned Author

Pat Conroy is a name perhaps perpetually linked with the word "censorship." At least three of his books have been removed from shelves due to their weighty, serious themes- those of suicide, mental illness, rape and death.

For example, the book The Prince of Tides deals with at least three of the above themes outright- it centers upon the Wingo family, with surviving son Tom as narrator. His older brother Luke was killed, and his twin sister Savannah has attempted suicide repeatedly and struggles with depression and schizophrenia. Savannah blames their childhood on the reason why they are so screwed up- their father, Henry, abused them regularly, and their social-climber of a mother, Lila, would never let them speak of it for fear that it would hurt their image. The same spoke true for an unspeakable event in their past- a brutal episode in which a man nicknamed "Callanwolde" escapes from prison with two other men and attacks the family, raping Tom, Savannah and Lila. The only reason they survived was because Luke came home, discovered the attack and set the family tiger, Caesar- a product of one of Henry's many failed business dealings- on two of the men. Tom kills his own attacker. In the years afterward, Savannah tries hard (and fails) to take on the life of a new person by moving to New York, and Tom tries to move on and live a normal life with his wife, Sallie, to no avail. Tom ends up traveling to New York to help his sister, and finds a connection with Savannah's psychiatrist and her son.

Another book of his, Beach Music, centers on Jack, a food critic and author with his own demons in the South who moves to Italy with his daughter Leah after his wife, Shyla, commits suicide. There he escapes from his family- alcoholic father Johnson Hagood, ailing mother Lucy, brothers Dupree, Dallas, Tee and John Hardin (the last of whom is schizonphrenic), in-laws (who tried to get custody of Leah), and friend Capers Middleton, who sold out another friend of theirs, Jordan Elliott. Jordan is also in Italy, transformed from anti-Vietnam protester (and accidental murderer) to Catholic priest and in hiding from prosecution for the deaths of two people. When Lucy ends up nearly on her deathbed from her leukemia, Jack comes back to South Carolina and subsequently brings his past with him, realizing why he stayed away- and also, why it's imperative for him to come back.

Though at times both of these novels are terribly melodramatic (especially in terms of dialogue), they are almost irresistible- compulsively readable, funny in spite of their weight. The characters are well-developed, and Conroy makes no bones about tackling tough subjects such as the ones illustrated in these stories. Likewise, parents have sought to ban his works with the same sort of efficiency. In Charleston, W.Va., parents at Nitro High School attempted to ban these two works for depictions of violence, sexual content, language, sexual assault, and suicide. A student of Nitro High School, Mackenzie Hatfield, got in touch with Conroy and informed him through email that his books were being censored, thus bringing him into the ring. He replied to her, calling the censors "idiots" and maintains that his books reflect real life, in which good and bad happens, quite obviously. I'm in full agreement with him on this. As I quote from his email:

About the novels your county just censored: “The Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music” are two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were
killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In “Beach Music,” I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

When you read of a history such as that one, how can you possibly ask him to write about only happy things? Of course one might wonder exactly why he focuses on the horrible side of things, but he is enough of a talented writer to make these subjects accessible, if a bit hard to stomach at first. The job of a writer is to make one's story realistic- to shock readers, to make them laugh, cry, react. No writer wants to hear that his or her book lulled someone to sleep. No one wants to hear that his or her book isn't something someone out there can relate to. Conroy achieves his purpose, and he does it well. That is the most important thing. In the end, the books were returned to the classroom on the condition that students be offered alternative reading material.

There is another book of Conroy's I haven't yet read, called The Lords of Discipline; I'll most likely update this post with my review of that book, or perhaps even create a new one about it. As for you... read one of Conroy's books on your own, and decide for yourself whether or not Nitro was right in censoring them.

No comments:

Post a Comment